LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s efforts toward sustainable and eco-friendly tourism initiatives were promising but misunderstood throughout the region, an expert has claimed.
Taleb Rifai, former secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, was speaking to Arab News following a recent international travel sustainability summit in London.
He said: “It’s an issue on the Saudi agenda because the Saudis are trying to build their tourism industry and they understand that they can’t do it without tackling the issue of climate change.
“The issue of climate change is not very well understood in our part of the world unfortunately, now Saudi Arabia is a different example of that, but the other Arab states, we don’t talk about it in the streets.
“When you ask anybody about climate change, they don’t talk about it, they would rather talk about their livelihood, that’s more important to them,” he added.
He noted that the East Mediterranean, where he lives, was “one of the hottest areas in the world when it comes to climate change,” but that people there were not aware of it.
“Therefore, climate change is not an issue in our region. So, it has to be a regional issue,” Rifai added.
He slammed the UNWTO for failing to provide the leadership needed for the travel and tourism industry to be able to “stand on its feet” to “tackle the climate change and the biodiversity problem.”
Rifai said: “The travel and tourism industry is without leadership now because UNWTO is not commandeering the boat, although it’s a member state organization, it is not doing the leading that is needed.”
He praised conferences, such as the RESET travel sustainability meeting held on Nov. 3, as being important events in “really teaching us how to travel better, and set the rules for engagement, and provide a road map that would help us.”
He pointed out that the tourism and travel industry accounted for around 8 percent of the world’s carbon footprint, and that figure included all kinds of greenhouse gas emissions such as transport, souvenirs, food waste, and plastics abundant in the seas and oceans.
“That’s my judgment, because I think we should stand up to our responsibility and do that,” Rifai added.
Haifa Al-Kaylani, founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum, told Arab News: “We have been witnessing across the Arab region growing numbers of women entrepreneurs actually focusing very much on the social impact of sustainability and travel and tourism in the Gulf region.
“Since we started the forum 23 years ago, we found that there has been a huge advancement for the participation of women in the Arab region; in the economy and the wider various sectors of the communities, and most importantly, when it comes to working in the travel and tourism because they’re finding that they have lots of opportunities in this sector,” she said.
Speaking after the conference, Al-Kaylani added: “When you come to the region, you find there are many women that care about ecotourism and if you come to Jordan, Yemen, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman, you find that women are very involved in the artisan because they’re coming up with creative and innovative solutions to merge sustainability with cultural preservation and environment conservation.
“When it comes to the travel business and travel sector, Saudi Arabia is absolutely phenomenal. It is going to see greater growth with AlUla and all the amazing attractions that the world knows about — in terms of the historic attractions, the cultural attractions.
“With the tremendous opportunities they have now to play in the Kingdom, women are being encouraged to participate in every sector.
“But of course, when you come to Saudi Arabia, among the fastest growing sectors there is the tourism sector.
“So obviously, many opportunities for women in that sector have opened and are increasingly opening all the time.”
Al-Kaylani noted that a World Bank report on women’s participation in the Saudi economy estimated 30 percent participation by 2030.
She said: “We are now in 2023 and women’s participation is 37 percent and growing, so this is an indication of the importance of the role played by women in the Kingdom. They have accelerated and pushed forward to play the rightful role in the economy and to participate.
“With these new opportunities and huge investments in the tourism sector in Saudi Arabia, women are at the forefront of participating in this outstanding new development.
“While we acknowledge and applaud tremendous successes in the Gulf countries, mainly in terms of advances and part better participation for women in the workforce, the rest of the region, some countries are still lagging very much behind,” Al-Kaylani added.
On the “tremendous” breakthroughs and achievements so far, she called for more participation from governments, the private sector, and civil societies, as they were all “extremely important” and “necessary” to further support women empowerment in the sector throughout the region.
She said: “If we look at the average, in terms of women’s participation in the whole region — the 22 countries, you will find women’s participation in the workforce remains among the lowest in the world.
“At the end of the day, in order for women to have these opportunities and to excel in them, you need a top-down approach, in terms of legislation, investing in education, and all that is happening and has happened for the last three decades and more.”
On the RESET conference, organized by Wales-based TLC Harmony, Al-Kaylani added: “It is an excellent initiative because it is really putting a major industry, the travel industry, at the heart of all the important subjects we’re addressing now in terms of climate change, sustainability, and ensuring that while we are enjoying our environment, we are not damaging it.”
Nicki Page, founder of TLC (Total Life Cycle), said the coronavirus pandemic was when “true leadership should have come through” but the “UNWTO failed our industry when 200 million more were out of work, our industry shut down, and we were all in silos, there was nothing united about us other than we were united in misery caused by such distress and worry.
“So, we decided to continue independently with a focus on global markets, with this approach called TLC Harmony and GABI, which is a technology to evaluate the harms of climate, not just CO2 but greenhouse gasses plus impact on biodiversity, which we as travelers, we as developers of new hotels and assets, we as country leaders within tourism, are responsible for 8 percent of greenhouse gasses globally.”
She noted that the industry could learn from the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia which had “the power to lead a global change.”
Page said: “We see today Saudi Arabia as a new destination emerging with a target of 150 million arrivals as part of its Vision 2030.
“I think there can be learnings from those that have come before so that when people travel and that we develop sustainably, they will still come, but we believe they will come and stay longer and spend more actually on a sustainable, verified, and honest position and that’s what we would like to see.
“Arab women are very affluent businesswomen who are making decisions about how they invest their own money, how they travel with their families, what brands they buy, and want to support nature.
“These women in the Gulf are highly prized for luxury providers of services and brands, from hotels to handbags, and these women, in our knowledge and our understanding, are most concerned for the future generation of their children.
“And so, these women are the key, in our view, to pushing the sustainable agenda further and faster because if they choose not to stay in a particular hotel, because it has not delivered a verified sustainable position, then actually that hotel loses that business and we’re talking a lot of money.”
She said affluent Gulf women that loved to travel had “the power to change the way we do the business of travel.”
Page urged more collaboration from regional investment funds and luxury project owners, and extra support through education and understanding in the Gulf, as it could “make a fundamental difference to the protection of nature as it looks to diversify its economy away from oil.”
She said: “The passion of a younger generation in those Gulf countries, educated, looking for change and purpose; they can drive this, I believe, in a collective way for more years to come.”